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Boldly Going

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Noble Research Institute researchers earn a rare opportunity to launch an experiment into space
Plants in Space

"The best place to study gravitropism is where gravity is absent, and there's only one place to do that."

Elison Blancaflor, Ph.D.,
associate professor

  • Photos

It is 6:21 a.m. on April 5, 2010. The official NASA countdown has hit zero, and the main engines and solid rocket boosters of the Space Shuttle Discovery have ignited a fiery plume under the craft. The initial thunderous blast emitted from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center pulses through the assembled crowd more than three miles away where Elison Blancaflor stands with his research team, watching in silent amazement.

Clutching a video camera purchased specifically for this morning, Blancaflor gawks through the viewfinder as Discovery rocks slightly in its cradle before rising into the starless Florida morning like a manmade sun, the first step in its journey to the International Space Station.

For many, this trek into the stars will go unnoticed - dismissed as routine, even uneventful. For Blancaflor and his team, this launch - laced with a mixture of relief and pride - is the culmination of a stressful, blissful game of beat-the-clock that has consumed the past four months.

Tucked away in Discovery's middeck are 14 petri dishes of plant seedlings that represent a once-in-a-lifetime experiment. If successful, the results could impact agriculture on Earth as well as provide answers for the next generation of sustained space exploration. If it fails, the disappointment will be a permanent sore spot in the collective consciousness of the Noble researchers.

Soon the realization sets in that it will be two weeks before they know the answer. But for now, it is 6:21 a.m., and all the exhaustion and fear has faded as Discovery burns a bright white streak against the black veil of morning. It is at this moment they know - despite the outcome - they have accomplished something great.

Defying gravity
The journey to Launch Pad 39A began with an e-mail. In September 2009, NASA officials peppered national researchers with correspondence calling for grant submissions as part of the Biological Research in Canisters (BRIC) program, which required rapid-turnaround, peer-reviewed experiments. In addition to funding, NASA promised awardees a rare chance to place an experiment in space.

The stars seemed to align for Blancaflor, who had received a NASA grant 10 years prior to conduct ground-based research on gravitropism - the impact of gravity on plant growth. The new grant's guidelines required the use of a specific model plant - Arabidopsis thaliana (a relative of the mustard family) - which happened to be at the core of Blancaflor's research.

The experiment also held the potential to fulfill both NASA and the Noble Research Institute's missions. Studying the gravitropism phenomenon would allow Noble scientists to understand how plants develop correct anchorage, acquire nutrients and water, and absorb light for photosynthesis - all of which impact agricultural crops.

As for NASA, the project had implications for future space exploration. Plants are a key component for a regenerative life support system, providing a potential source of oxygen and food if humans ever embark on long-term space missions.

"Putting an experiment into space was a natural step for the research that has been going on in my laboratory for years," Blancaflor said. "The best place to study gravitropism is where gravity is absent, and there's only one place to do that."

NASA agreed. Blancaflor was one of three plant scientists nationwide to receive a two-year, $142,000 grant that included an opportunity to rocket research into orbit.

Project Manager David Cox, who along with Chris Comstock, deputy project manager, oversaw the BRIC mission, explained that Blancaflor's proposal stood out among the submissions. "He earned this flight. No luck was involved," Cox said. "He put together a solid proposal that received the universal respect of the peer review panel."

NASA announced the grant recipients at the end of January and scheduled a March 18 launch date. The timeline was tight, microscopic even, as space-bound experiments usually take months to properly prepare.

But Blancaflor realized the program was focused on rapid response, and he had anticipated the quick turnaround. He began preparations before he was selected so when the award was announced, his team was already steps ahead. Still, they battled the clock for 10 weeks.

Racing to the Stars
On the surface, a BRIC experiment looks simple: Arabidopsis seedlings are grown, sterilized, loaded onto petri dishes and shot into space. The plants spend two weeks growing in space and then are returned to Earth for study. In reality, growing plants in space requires more than a green thumb. Hundreds of man- hours are dedicated to learning, following and repeating NASA's stringent protocols. There can be no errors, no oversights; only perfected, thoroughly reviewed processes.

"If we mess something up in our laboratory here on Earth, we can always try again," Blancaflor said. "With this particular experiment, we only had one shot at getting everything correct."

In February, Jin Nakashima, Noble Research Institute cellular imaging facility manager and Blancaflor's right-hand man, traveled to the Space Life Sciences Laboratories at the Kennedy Space Center for hardware familiarization to learn the workings of the canisters that would hold their seedlings. He also established and stocked the remote lab, and coordinated schedules with the two other research teams sharing the lab space. The Noble team would take the earliest shift each morning from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., and 18-hour days would become the norm.

"Our preparation was the same there as it is here," Nakashima said. "But you are learning countless additional steps that generate consistent results."

Blancaflor, Nakashima, Yuhong Tang, Ph.D., the genomics microarray facility manager at the Noble Research Institute, and Alan Sparks, the lab's research assistant, returned to Florida later that month and spent two weeks passing a gauntlet of science verification tests, as well as conducting a payload verification test (PVT) - dress rehearsals for the launch and arrival of the space shuttle.

During the PVT, the NASA team scrutinized each step of the Earth-bound procedures, nixing elements or practices that posed any risk to the astronauts.

"Safety is the No. 1 priority for NASA," said Blancaflor. "They talked about it in every meeting and every day. Some take space shuttle launches for granted; NASA does not."

The rigorous testing also examined the BRIC unit's ability to withstand the vibration it would experience during launch and ensured that the unit would not leak any chemicals that were used to treat the plants in space. Each test brought new challenges, but the group relished the experience. "We wanted to watch every test, hear every explanation, learn everything," Sparks said. "How many times do you have this type of opportunity?"

While Noble's BRIC passed each trial, there were setbacks - one which could have derailed the entire experiment.

The Volkswagen Mission
The PVT serves as the linchpin to the entire preparation process. During the simulation, each team develops their samples and hands them off to NASA officials as though it was the morning of the launch. "There is no flight without a successful PVT," Cox explained.

Blancaflor, Nakashima and Sparks completed the flight PVT with near perfection. Though the plants were not going into space during the test, the teams were required to wait two weeks and return to Florida to simulate the landing.

Even though the petri dishes had been stored down the hall, the Noble researchers were eager to see the results. Following prescribed routine, a NASA technician examines the seedlings in each dish first, calling out various technical elements to be recorded, and then finishes the assessment by saying "good growth" or "poor growth."

After only a few dishes, excitement had faded into dismay. By the end of the landing PVT, the technician had said "poor growth" more than 60 percent of the time. "It was a horrendous germination rate," Blancaflor said. "If they had been the actual seedlings returning from space, we would not have been able to get enough material to study."

Blancaflor had anticipated this moment a few months prior. The seeds his lab used for ground research were older, so before they even received the grant, he had Sparks harvest new seeds from fresh plants. Blancaflor theorized that in addition to the old seed, the higher concentration of the gel and not enough exposure to cold temperatures after planting may have contributed to the failure.

Additionally, the trip to Kennedy Space Center may have impacted the seed. Looking back, Blancaflor laughed at their mistake. "We checked the seed in our luggage, which went through the x-ray machine," he said. "That probably played some role in the low germination rate."

For the actual launch, the newly harvested seed was chauffeured the 1,250 miles from Ardmore, Okla., to Cape Canaveral, Fla., in the back of Nakashima's Volkswagen GTI. "The PVT was extremely important because we learned from our mistakes," Blancaflor said. "Practice does make perfect."

Even before the PVT was finalized, word came that the launch date had pushed back to April 5. "Delays happen so easily; easier than the public thinks," Blancaflor said. "In every meeting, we discussed possible delays, delay scenarios and rumors of delays."

The team returned to Ardmore with the expectation that the postponement would allow some normalcy. Blancaflor kept the pressure on, however, testing and retesting every procedure, even conducting a PVT. Additionally, Sparks tested seed every day. NASA could attempt three launches in five days, meaning the team needed enough seed for five full sets of experiments.

By the time they returned to Florida in early April, they were tired, but ready.

The real deal
The day before Discovery's launch, Elison Blancaflor woke up about 2 a.m. While groggy, his mind raced with an ever-growing mental checklist. Nakashima, Sparks and Tang were anxious to begin the day as well.

The PVTs, while grueling, made the morning's work surprisingly simple. The team prepared the petri dishes seamlessly and handed them off to the NASA technician who loaded them into the canister and performed one last leak test. Once it was sealed, they could only wait for a launch that may or may not come.

They rested that afternoon, reassembled for an early dinner and attempted sleep once more, but with the anticipation of a launch, they returned to the lab at 2 a.m. There was also a chance the launch would be scrubbed, in which case they would need to begin the seed preparation process once more.

They brought pillows to rest, but ended up swigging down coffee and reliving the past four months. When no delay was issued, the team traveled with NASA officials to the Vehicle Assembly Building to view the launch. (Nakashima, who is also a member of the Japanese media, shot photos from the press site.) Twenty minutes before launch, hundreds of people assembled around them in the dark, still wondering if there would be a launch. NASA can scrub a mission less than 10 minutes before liftoff. But the skies were clear and the crowd hopeful.

When the countdown boomed over loudspeakers, Blancaflor and Sparks held their breath. At 6:21 a.m., Discovery rumbled into space with a grandeur and power Blancaflor can still barely explain. "It was like a giant ball of fire," he said. "We were three miles away, and the sound was so strong I felt like I was right next to it. Watching it on TV does not nearly capture the awesome force of a launch."

The engines and solid rocket boosters crackled like popcorn as they burned 11,000 pounds of propellant a second. The shuttle quickly gained speed, and, in less than a minute and a half, the stream of light disappeared. Still staring at the black sky, Blancaflor had a surprising emotional reaction: "It was a mix of feelings - relief that it is over, fear that everything will not work right and pride. There are so many shuttle flights, but when you have something on one, that's a part of you; it's just different, special."

The waiting game
If waiting for the actual launch was tough, waiting for the plants to return was excruciating. Blancaflor and company returned once again to the Noble Research Institute and their daily routines, but the space shuttle, which orbited about 250 miles over their heads, was a constant source of conversation.

After 13 days in space, the astronauts injected a special compound into the canisters to preserve the plants' structures and genes, allowing researchers to compare the space seedlings with the control group at NASA.

The process of injecting the fluid sounds as simple as squeezing a tube of toothpaste, but Cox explained that it involved more than a dozen meticulous steps, using specially designed equipment that provided triple containment to the potentially harmful fluid at all times.

"The lay person rarely knows of details involved in carrying out space flight experiments," Cox said. "It is very expensive to do research in space. We cannot afford to mess up, so we script the crew's every movement. They were trained on injecting the fluid into the BRIC units before we even awarded the grants."

Less than a day after the plants had been fixed, the first landing attempt had been scheduled and then scrapped due to excessive rain in Florida. The next day fog threatened to force Discovery to its alternate landing site in California; however, the haze cleared and at 9:08 a.m. on April 18, the space shuttle landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center. Five hours later, the petri dishes the team had packed away two weeks prior were brought in by NASA technicians. "I was like an expectant father waiting for the birth of my child. It was a mixture of anxiety and excitement," Blancaflor said. "I kept thinking: What if the seeds did not germinate? We just wanted to open up the canisters, grab the dishes and see if the seedlings grew in space."

Following the usual stringent protocol, however, the NASA tech disassembled the BRIC unit, examined the first dish, detailed the technical aspects and then she said, "We have lots of growth here."

Success. All 14 dishes housed thriving seedlings that had been successfully preserved in space. Over the next two days, seedlings from each petri dish were harvested, washed and photographed before being frozen in liquid nitrogen for transport back to Ardmore.

Three months after the shuttle landed, Blancaflor sat in his office, a NASA coffee cup proudly displayed on the shelf behind him, as well as a photo of his team's faces crudely Photoshopped onto the bodies of astronauts. "We're just now getting back to a normal routine," he said. "It was worth all the stress and worry, though. I would not trade the experience."

Down the hall in the heart of the Noble Research Institute's cellular imaging facility, two experiments are making slow, but steady progress. Blancaflor and Nakashima are studying the structure of the cells to understand how microgravity impacted plant development. They initially hypothesized that the lack of gravity would cause the roots to grow in all directions. However, the roots grew in a particular pattern, a phenomenon that had never been observed before.

For her part, Tang is looking at the changes in gene expression, specifically did the lack of gravity cause certain genes to function at a higher or lower level? Her early findings have demonstrated a large number of genes are indeed affected by space flight.

Tang will spend the next several months cataloging the list of genes and their relationship to each other, and then correlating those genes to the growth and structure of the plant.

By using the information from space flight experiments, Blancaflor hopes to influence the development of agriculturally significant crops grown on Earth or the design of plants that are better adapted to extreme environmental conditions such as those found in space or severe drought. Months and maybe years of analysis lie ahead, but Blancaflor is undeterred.

"Science is performed by excavating a single layer of data at a time," he said. "The knowledge we gain from studying plants in space will be important for what we do here on earth and as humankind seeks to colonize new worlds, but it will take time to sift through the data. Science is definitely not for those seeking instant gratification. Those moments of discovery only come along every so often."

Like at 6:21 a.m. on April 5, 2010.